The Buzz on Honey Bees, May 2013

The month of May always makes us think of flowers, and flowers makes us think of bees, and bees make us think of Honeybees.

Honeybees are social insects.  In the wild, they create elaborate nests called hives containing up to 20,000 individuals during the summer months.  They work together in a highly structured social order.  Each bee belongs to one of three specialized groups called castes.   The different castes are: queens, drones and workers.

There is only one queen in a hive and her main purpose is to make more bees. She can lay over 1,500 eggs and will usually live less than two years. She is larger and has a longer abdomen than the worker or drones. She has chewing mouthparts, and her stinger is curved with no barbs on it and can be used many times.

Drone bees are all male and have no stinger. They live about eight weeks. Only a few hundred are ever present in a hive. Their sole function is to mate with the queen bee. A drones eyes are noticeably bigger than those of other castes. This helps them to spot the queen when its time to mate with her. Any drones left at the end of the season are no longer needed and will be driven out of the hive to die.

Worker bees are the most numerous in the hive and do all the different jobs needed to maintain and operate the hive. They are all females but are unable to reproduce and lay eggs. When they are young they are called house bees and work in the hive doing comb construction, taking care of young bees, tending the queen and drones, cleaning temperature regulation and defending the hive. Older workers gather nectar, pollen and water, and sticky plant resins used in the construction of the hive. They are born early in the season and live only about 6 weeks. Workers are highly specialized for the work that they do. On each hind leg they have a structure called a pollen basket, and extra stomach used for transporting the collected nectar from flowers. They also contain glands that produce beeswax and have straight barbed stingers that can be used only once after which it rips out of their abdomen and kills the bee.

Worker bees use beeswax to build the six-sided honeycombs, which are the central feature of the hive. These honey combs are where the eggs are laid and develop as well as storing the honey and pollen.

 Besides making the sweet and tasty honey that we all enjoy, honeybees play a very important ecological role; they pollenate flowers, which will then produce the fruits and seeds. Many times this relationship is so strong that many plants cannot reproduce without their help. Flowers too have evolved to assist bees at this task. The brightly colored flowers with their delightful smells are all designed to attract bees to them. In gathering the pollen and nectar they also spread the pollen to other flowers thereby fertilizing them to produce the fruits and seeds.

The next time you are out in the field and see bees busy at their days work, think of their wonderful connection to flowers, and the many animals, including  humans,  that benefit from this wonderful relationship of the natural world.